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Gators Game Preview: Florida HC Billy Napier in the Sun Belt Championship

New Gators head coach Billy Napier takes the field for the final time with ULL Saturday. What should you watch for from him in the Sun Belt Championship Game?

The Florida Gators have just their second weekend off since the end of August following a bowl-clinching victory over Florida State last weekend.

Usually, the disappointment of a 6-6 season would be starting to set in as Championship Saturday approaches, 

However, new Gators head coach Billy Napier is gearing up to lead the University of Louisiana at Lafayette into battle agains the Appalachian State Mountaineers for the Sun Belt Championship, giving UF fans something to look forward to.

Here is an extensive breakdown of what to watch when scouting the new head ball coach when the ULL Ragin’ Cajuns kick off at 3:30 p.m.

What to expect from Napier’s offense

The main area of interest to Florida fans will be to watch how the ULL offense operates, as it will provide valuable insight for what is to come in the post-Dan Mullen era of the Gators offense.

When watching the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game on Saturday, what can you expect to see from Napier’s offense?

The main component of the ULL offense is the ground and pound. Known as a run-oriented attack – running on 60% of their offensive snaps – ULL is committed to a power rushing scheme with read-option accents to break up the monotony of pounding the ball between the tackles.

Utilizing a young running back rotation in sophomore Chris Smith and freshman Montrell Johnson, ULL ranks as the No. 43 rushing offense in 2021, averaging 184.2 yards per game.

Smith, their leading rusher, has totaled 834 yards and eight touchdowns on 144 carries this season. He averages 5.4 yards per carry, including a 74-yarder against Arkansas State to win the game in week seven. 

Meanwhile, Johnson – the Sun Belt freshman of the year – has been nothing short of fantastic in year one, totaling 776 yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 attempts this season.

The one-two punch they employ will likely mirror the backfield Florida trots onto the field next season with Nay'Quan Wright and Demarkcus Bowman toting most carries.

As the contest wears on, the power-rushing game makes it difficult on their opposition, opening holes like the one Smith took advantage of to close the door on Arkansas State.

Simultaneously, the constant rushing attack sets up the passing games, led by quarterback Levi Lewis (who you will find out more about later on). In doing so, Napier proves that while the rushing game is the staple of his offense, production is not limited to the performance on the ground.

Making it a point of emphasis to spread the ball around through the air, Napier attempts to make the quarterback’s job easy, giving him a plethora of easy options no matter the type of play that is called.

Most popularly, ULL wins with RPOs, flood concepts and calculated deep shots on play action.

Watchung how Napier’s offense clicks during the game’s opening script – usually a list of play calls that encompasses the first 15 or so offense snaps – and how he adjusts to the Appalachian State defense will be a point of interest for Gators fans.

The Ragin’ Cajuns’ personnel on this side of the ball is similar to the one he will have when he arrives at UF, giving a glimpse into the scheme Florida will work out of in week one of 2022 versus Utah in The Swamp.

What to expect from ULL defense

The ULL defense is harder to compare to what Napier will bring to the Gators because of the unknown surrounding the coaching staff and his affiliation with the offense. 

However, dating back to his days under head coach Nick Saban at Alabama, Napier served as a defensive analyst for the Tide, growing even more familiar with the opposite side of the ball. 

As a result, some similarities will carry over from Lafayette to Gainesville. The main thing to watch for is how the ULL defense attacks the football.

Through 12 games this season, UL is tied for fourth in turnover margin in college football at plus-13. Forcing a total of 20 takeaways through the season, 1.67 per game, ULL is an aggressive group of ball hawks that take pride in making plays on the ball.

On Saturday, it will be essential to watch how a defense that plays with discipline can also take chances to break on the football.

The Gators are a team that used to thrive off making splash defensive turnovers but have struggled to do so in recent years.

Napier, and whoever he brings with him to coach on the defensive side of the ball, will surely be adamant about making plays on the football in the future.

Quarterback Comparison: Levi Lewis vs. Anthony Richardson

After learning about how the Louisiana offense ticks, you may be asking yourself: “Why was there so little said about the quarterback position?”

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That’s because how Napier uses his quarterbacks deserves its own section, especially given the fact that current ULL quarterback Levi Lewis has a similar skillset to the quarterback he will inherit at UF.

The future of the Florida Gators program has presumably been handed over to Gainesville native Anthony Richardson following the struggles of Emory Jones in 2021. Plugged into several contests throughout the year, Richardson provided a spark to the UF offensive attack, proving to be a catalyst for explosive plays when behind the center.

As a result, Napier will be tasked with putting Richardson in a position to succeed in year one of his regime.

Fortunately, with Lewis being a dual-threat, Napier will give Gators fans a blueprint of how he will use the redshirt sophomore in his offense next year.

And, Richardson won’t have too much turnover of the playbook, as the aforementioned read options, RPOs and designed QB runs will remain steadfast in the Gators offense next season.

When comparing the two, Lewis is a drastically undersized and left-handed version of Richardson. Winning with his speed and elusiveness, Lewis forces opposing defenses to hold edge contain with consistency.

When they’re able to, which is sparingly according to his 226 yards and four rushing touchdowns, he’s limited. However, Richardson has shown that his size allows him to accompany his speed with strength, working ahead for positive yardage even when it looks like nothing is there.

As a result, Richardson will add another dimension to the ground game as another power runner in the mix, albeit in moderation to protect him from injury.

Napier has made it a point to make Lewis’ job at the quarterback position as easy as possible throughout the year. Completing over 60% of his passing and holding an 18:4 touchdown to interception ratio, Lewis has benefited from those efforts.

A significant factor in creating an easy look for Lewis is cutting the field in half using the flood concepts. Rolling to his left, where he’s comfortable, Napier allows his signal-caller to go through progression more straightforwardly, providing a plethora of options in a confined space.

In doing so, Lewis limits the number of mistakes he could be forced into by having to scan the whole field. Instead, he earns easy, confidence-building completions that can break off into chunk yardage gains.

He accompanies that with presnap motion, allowing Lewis to diagnose man or zone coverage. 

Namely, Napier implements return motion, where wideouts will come halfway across the formation, at most, before returning to the side of the field they just came from, allowing a chance to see if his defender follows him in trail.

As a result, Richardson – who was oft-criticized under the previous regime for being a step behind in his ability to run through progressions – will have less pressure to perform as a pocket passer while those skills to read a defense quickly and efficiently are taught.

Last Time: Appalachian State vs. Louisiana

Taking the aggressive approach paid dividends for the Ragin’ Cajun’s last time; expect much of the same in the conference championship.

In week six of the 2021 regular season, Appalachian State made their trip down into the Bayou to take on a surging Louisana at Lafayette team.

Early on, Napier decided to take the top off of the Mountaineers’ defense, going deep on the second play from scrimmage to wide receiver Kyren Lacy for a 55 yard gain into the RedZone.

Led by a strong start through the air for Lewis, going 4-for-5, 119 yards and two total touchdowns in the first quarter, ULL scored on their first three possessions to jump out to a 20-6 lead in the first half of play.

ULL continued the onslaught in the second half, picking off the Mountaineers on the first drive of the third quarter – one of four on the day – before capitalizing on the ensuing drive with a touchdown. 

In the end, Napier’s squad walked out with a 41-13 victory after dominating from start to finish.

This time around, there is likely to be a similarly aggressive approach to the game plan from the ULL coaching staff. Looking to get App State on their heels early, Lewis’ arm will likely be used in an increased volume to complement a rushing attack that ran roughshod for 246 yards on Oct. 12.

It’s always difficult to beat a team twice in the same season, especially when you’re the only ones to hand them a conference loss on the season. However, the blueprint has been laid for ULL to reign victorious from their last meeting.

On Saturday, Napier gets his final chance to win a Sun Belt Conference title and leave the program he has built up in glory. 

As a result, the energy exuded from the ULL sideline will be high, making for an entertaining contest that will have a lot of unfamiliar eyes transfixed on the product.

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